Dumbbells are simply incredible.
There’s almost no fitness goal dumbbells can’t help you achieve. Dumbbell training can build muscle, increase strength, improve mobility, burn fat, increase endurance, enhance athleticism, and prevent injury.
The catch? Not just any dumbbells will cut it. Your dumbbells must be heavy enough to trigger exercise-induced adaptations throughout your body. Yet they mustn’t be so heavy that you can’t actually use them!
While it’d be fantastic to have an extensive rack filled with dozens of dumbbells, such a set-up can cost thousands of dollars and also take up an enormous amount of space. Most fitness enthusiasts in the market for dumbbells are simply looking to buy somewhere between 1-5 pairs.
This creates a bit of a conundrum. If you’re limited to just a handful of dumbbells, what weights should you buy?
Let’s break down this common fitness equipment question to ensure you have the best tools to tackle your fitness goals.
Identify Your Dumbbell Training Goals
The first step to finding your perfect dumbbell weight is to determine your primary training goal.
Do you plan on using your dumbbells mainly for compound exercises or isolation exercises? Or a blend of the two?
Compound exercises (also known as compound movements) are exercises that activate several large muscle groups simultaneously. Isolation exercises (also known as isolation movements), by contrast, typically activate just one or two muscle groups.
Compound exercises offer the most bang for your fitness buck. They’re more efficient for building strength and muscle, they burn more calories, and they offer greater cardiovascular benefit. While isolation movements are less efficient, they can still be useful. They’re best used to target individual muscles that may be weak or underdeveloped and to target common aesthetic areas like the biceps or abdominals.
Generally, compound exercises are best performed with heavier weights. Isolation exercises are best performed with lighter weights.
Some of the best compound dumbbell exercises include:
- Dumbbell Deadlifts (RDLs, from the ground, sumo, staggered stance)
- Dumbbell Squats (front rack, goblet, kickstand)
- Dumbbell Bench Press (flat, incline, decline, floor, single-arm)
- Dumbbell Lunges (forward, reverse, walking, lateral, suitcase)
- Dumbbell Overhead Presses (seated, standing, thrusters, single-arm)
- Dumbbell Rows (bent-over, chest-supported, single-arm)
- Dumbbell Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats
- Dumbbell Farmer Carries (suitcase, front rack, overhead)
Some of the best dumbbell isolation exercises include:
- Dumbbell Curls (hammer, preacher, concentration, wrist, single-arm)
- Dumbbell Tricep Extensions (standing, lying, single-arm)
- Dumbbell Raises (lateral, front, palms-up)
- Dumbbell Flies (incline, decline, flat, reverse)
- Dumbbell Calf Raises
Great fitness routines often concentrate primarily on compound exercises with some isolation exercises sprinkled in to help boost activation or hypertrophy.
Do you plan to use your dumbbells to build full-body strength with moves like squats, presses, lunges, rows and deadlifts? Then you should prioritize medium-to-heavy weights in your dumbbell arsenal.
Do you plan to use your dumbbells to tone up just a couple areas (like your arms) and aren’t too interested in compound exercises? Then you should prioritize lighter weights in your dumbbell arsenal.
Most People Should Start with a Pair of Medium-Weight Dumbbells.
If you’re interested in a variety of training goals, a pair of medium-weight dumbbells is the perfect place to start.
Two medium-weight dumbbells will offer a ton of flexibility in your routine and help you effectively build strength, gain muscle and burn fat.
Rather than guess, the best way to find this weight is to get your hands on some different dumbbells and do a little training. Visit a local gym or see if a friend or family member owns some dumbbells. The right weight should feel challenging, but not so heavy that you can’t perform multiple compound exercises for ~6-12 reps per set with proper form. Try moves like Front Rack Squats, Floor Presses, Chest-Supported Rows, Overhead Presses and Reverse Lunges.
If you can only perform a couple reps for most of these moves with a given weight, said weight is likely too heavy. If you can easily perform 15-20 reps or more, the weight is likely too light.
“Medium-weight dumbbells should be heavy enough to produce a good training effect in your lower body, but not so heavy you can’t also use them for presses or rows for reps,” says Brandon Hall, a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist and health & fitness consultant.
RELATED: What Weight Kettlebell Should I Buy?
If you want to buy just one pair of dumbbells and hope to use them for more than just isolation exercises, a medium-weight pair is the perfect choice. Even if you want to buy several pairs, a medium-weight pair is a good centerpiece to build out the rest of your collection around.
What if I Want to Buy Just One Dumbbell?
If you want to buy just a single dumbbell, use the same methodology described above.
However, you’ll want to focus solely on compound exercises that can be performed with a single dumbbell. Try different weights for moves like Goblet Squats, Single-Arm Overhead Presses, Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows, Suitcase Lunges, etc. You want a weight that will let you perform ~6-12 reps per set for several of these movements with good form.
What if I Want to Buy Two or Three Pairs of Dumbbells?
You should still start with a medium-weight pair of dumbbells.
Then you can decided whether you want to further prioritize max strength or things like muscle endurance, hypertrophy, and isolation exercises.
If it’s max strength, go with a pair of heavy-weight dumbbells. They need to be significantly heavier than your medium-weight dumbbells — maybe ~40-70% heavier. They should feel fairly challenging for moves like Dumbbell Deadlifts and Farmer’s Walks, and you may only be able to use them for ~1-5 reps on other compound movements. For some movements, you may not be able to do any reps at all (at least not right away). That’s okay!
If you want to prioritize muscle endurance, hypertrophy, and isolation exercises, go with a pair of light-weight dumbbells. They should be weights you can use for ~10-20 reps per set of isolation moves like Hammer Curls, Standing Tricep Extensions, and Front Raises. You still want to ensure the weight’s challenging enough that you can train to failure relatively quickly. For example, if you can do 40 or 50 curls in a row without much trouble, you probably want to go with something a bit heavier.
If you only want two pairs of dumbbells, we recommend buying one medium-weight pair and then deciding whether you want to prioritize light or heavy weight for your other pair.
If you have the budget and desire to own three pairs of dumbbells, we recommend buying one light-weight pair, one medium-weight pair and one heavy-weight pair.
What if I Want to Buy Four or Five Pairs of Dumbbells?
You should still start with one light-weight pair, one medium-weight pair, and one heavy-weight pair.
Then, think about where you’d like to fill the gaps. What additional weights would be most useful?
Would a very light pair be nice? Perhaps you could use it for the arms portion of your spin workouts or shoulder rehab/prehab. How about a pair somewhere between your medium and heavy dumbbells? That could give you a nice runway for growth as your strength increases. A very heavy pair could be useful if you're big on Farmer's Carries, and could also be used one at a time for moves like Goblet Squats.
Buying the Right Dumbbell Weights
While there are thousands of different dumbbell exercises at your disposal, dumbbell training doesn’t have to be complicated.
Start by identifying the type of workouts you’d like to perform. For individuals simply looking to get in better overall shape, starting with 2-3 compound exercises and finishing with 1-2 isolation exercises is a solid game plan. Next, pick weights that will deliver the appropriate challenge for your desired workouts. Prioritize weights that best align to your unique goals. Starting with a medium-weight pair and going from there is a great idea.
HulkFit’s Rubber-Encased Hex Dumbbells run from 10-50 pounds and are available in both singles and pairs. A cast iron core delivers superb strength and durability while the contoured handles provide a secure, comfortable grip. Hexagon shaped rubber dumbbell heads help prevent floor damage and allow for easy, stackable storage.
These dumbbell weight recommendations apply to all fitness enthusiasts. Don't limit yourself to a certain weight because you think it's what you're "supposed to lift" based on your age or gender. Identify your fitness goals, assess your current abilities, and buy the best tools for you!